In a Tuesday afternoon virtual session during the annual ISTE conference, a group of district technology directors led the latest iteration of the show's popular "CTO Bootcamp" panel. Organized by the ISTE Technology Coordinators Network, the discussion's participants were also all representing school systems that received the ISTE Distinguished District Award in recent years.
Over the course of the nearly-hour-long discussion moderated by Brian Seymour, director of instructional technology for Pickerington Local School District in Ohio and president of ISTE’s Technology Coordinators Network, the focus remained largely on pandemic responses and the best practices that will persist as schools return to full-time, in-person learning.
Empathy, grace and silver linings
Asked about her district's biggest takeaway from the shift to remote learning necessitated by COVID-19, Melissa Prohaska, technology and digital coordinator for Middletown City Schools in Ohio, stated that a districtwide focus on keeping empathy and grace first and foremost meant making sure all users were supported.
“Everybody assumes everybody knows how to use stuff digitally,” but Middletown is a 100% free and reduced-price lunch community and you have to figure out how to support all of your users, Prohaska said. “That doesn’t mean pushing out through Twitter or Facebook or that. We’ve gotta pick up the phone and call some people, too, sometimes — just to make sure everybody’s included.”
Diane Harazin, supervisor of instructional technology for Prince William County Public Schools in Virginia, added that a lot of positive things happened with the pandemic, allowing many schools to do things they would have never dreamed of. Her district had a technology plan to phase to 1:1 over the next five years but is now fully 1:1 due to the disruption of the pandemic.
“We’ve got teachers who never touched technology now saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I never knew we could do this, I never knew my students could do this,’” Harazin said, noting many also recognized that their students now had more choice in showing how and what they learned.
Todd Wesley, chief technology officer for Lakota Local School District in Ohio, said the experience reiterated how integral and dedicated teachers are to student learning.
“We all knew this, but having to pivot overnight to remote learning and ensure there was continuity of learning,” and then having to pivot for reopening with new protocols and other challenges while offering a virtual academy option for students remaining remote underscored that, Wesley said. “We all know technology has a role, but it wasn’t the focus. And that was a positive takeaway for me.”
He added that the situation highlighted the flexibility and responsiveness of both students and staff.
Expanded opportunities for districts to collaborate
Once lockdowns were announced in Ohio, superintendents across the state put together a collaborative with a goal of getting different groups together to lead discussions on challenges and best practices.
“That experience has been wonderful because we’ve been able to compare notes,” Wesley said, adding that these groups include a mix of rural, urban and suburban districts with challenges of varying sizes and similarity. “That whole experience has been wonderful and definitely something we want to continue moving forward.”
Seymour added, “Maybe it’s not weekly like we were doing there for a while — maybe it’s monthly or every other month — but just being able to have that dialog and questions like that.”
Strategic shifts in staff roles
Seymour asked participants whether the way IT staff are being used changed because of the pandemic, as well as their recommendations moving forward.
Harazin said her district has about 95 instructional technology coaches, with coaches in every single building on a teacher scale contract. Their main role is to support teachers with instructional technology, and a technical support specialist also works in partnership with the coaches.
“Our technology coaches totally took the lead in making sure teachers had what they needed to go forward” when schools closed, training teachers on Canvas and other applications needed, Harazin said.
Going forward, Harazin recommends districts trust their instructional technology coaches, listen to them, and give them opportunities to collaborate.
“When they work with each other, they work with people in the same role, great things happen,” she said, adding that by creating time for that collaboration, “we’ve overcome so many challenges that could have been disastrous had they not been able to work together.
Prohaska said since her district is on the small side, she’s in more of a position where she has to be a jack-of-all-trades and take on all of the support roles. Teachers, however, step up all the time, she said.
“We have a phenomenal group of teacher leaders in all of our buildings, so what we did was divvy up our softwares so they became an expert in a certain area,” Prohaska said, adding that this allowed each teacher leader to become a go-to resource for the district. Over 100 short videos were then made and uploaded in a shared Google Drive to serve as guides for teachers, along with a group chat and other tools.
Adjusting strategies for new tech amid school returns
Seymour suggested more school districts went 1:1 in the last 18 months than in the last 18 years. As a result, now that districts have all of these new devices and software and kids are coming back to school, what should administrators be thinking about from a learning model standpoint?
Wesley noted that his district was 1:1 already in several grades before the pandemic, and in the fall, 75% of students returned in-person.
In spring 2020, Lakota Local School District, like many others, was inundated with offers for “free” software. The district had an app and website approval process already established that they leaned on heavily, but they also tried to make sure when they said “no” to an educator’s proposal for using a certain tool that they did so with clear reasons. Wesley also said if something similar was already offered in that arena, the district would advise that educators use that.
His advice to other IT leaders is to ensure a plan is in place for their district to vet software, and to make sure all of those processes align with curriculum and instructional goals as well as technology standards and expectations.
Harazin added that contracting for device refreshes and clean-up during summer is also crucial, and stressed the point of making sure when teachers and staff want to use a new piece of software or another digital tool that they read what info is collected to protect student privacy.
Changes to distribution processes
Prohaska noted that Middletown doesn’t allow students to keep computers over summer because it's a very transient district, and a lot of things can change during those months. For distribution at the beginning of the school year, they’re streamlining processes to make sure everyone can log onto their device on day one and that it connects to their hotspot.
“One of the biggest hurdles I always have every year is this teacher has everybody log on the first day, but some other teacher may not have them log on until 10 days later, and I don’t know who has what or there’s always a glitch with an upload or something,” Prohaska said.
Along with doing a one-day distribution on the first day back, Middletown is also doing a hybrid start, with the first half of the alphabet on day one and the second half on day two, to make sure everyone is re-acclimated back to being in school.
Wesley also noted that his district is doing the hybrid start because they tried it last year, and it worked well, he said.